E-books Bring Canadian Art History to Life

By Mark Skeffington

An ambitious project is breathing new life into Canadian art history.

The project involves publishing a series of e-books on notable Canadian artists, with an emphasis on ground-breaking artists, both historical and contemporary.

The Art Canada Institute has already published a dozen titles, with six more scheduled to come out between now and next spring.

Photo of E-books published by the Art Canada Institute

A few of the E-books available from the Art Canada Institute which showcase Canadian art history.

“The Art Canada Institute’s goal is to get Canadians talking about historic art today. We believe that the past is relevant to what is going on now,” says Sara Angel, who created and pushed forward the project, with plenty of support along the way.

Canadian art history has been an under-told story – or perhaps more accurately, an under-heard story — especially outside art circles.

Group of Seven

While the Group of Seven story has entered Canada’s popular knowledge and culture – even mythology – only a scattering of Canadian artists have been immortalized in print. A small number of coffee table books on popular or highly-regarded artists make their way to market, but many artists don’t get their due.

The project’s theme and motto tells the story behind the purpose: “Making Canadian art history a contemporary conversation.”

The problem isn’t that Canadians don’t or won’t buy art history books, says Angel. The real problem is the high cost of publishing full-colour art books has meant that relatively few have been produced.

The Art Canada Institute was formed to fill that void, set up with an agenda to put a spotlight on Canadian artists, their stories, their art and their influence.

“Our focus is on artists who have been game changers, who have made a fundamental impact on Canadian art history,” says Angel, a respected arts writer, critic, lecturer and scholar.

“Artists that should be well known, we want to make better known. And artists who aren’t household names we want to bring to the public’s attention.”

Titles published so far reflect that intent.

They are:

• Zacharie Vincent
• Jack Chambers
• William Notman
• Michael Snow
• Kathleen Munn
• Paul-Emile Borduas
• Harold Town
• Joyce Wieland
• Paul Kane
• Emily Carr
• Yves Gaucher
• Pitseolak Ashoona
• Oscar Cahen
• Prudence Heward
• Tom Thomson

All the books can be either read online or downloaded, making them highly accessible and easy to use (they are also mobile friendly).

The quality of the writing, research and visuals is top notch.

The books are mini art history lessons, chock full of key information about the artist’s personal life, artistic oeuvre and their influence. Each book is organized under key headings: Biography, Key Works, Significance & Critical Issues, Style & Techniques, Sources & Resources, and Where to See.

The books make extensive use of historical photographs. For example, you get a glimpse of Emily Carr’s early life and drawings, including those done in Europe in her training phase, before she turned her eyes on Canada’s landscape.

Donations Welcome

Canada Art Institute is a non-profit research institute devoted to Canadian art history, based at the University of Toronto’s Massey College.

Its e-book project is supported by private and corporate donations. Donations, which are eligible for tax receipts, can be made by visiting the Donations page on its website.

It’s tempting to call this project a well-kept secret, but word has been steadily spreading, with national media attention and tens of thousands of visits to the ACI website.

The project has also been recognized for using modern technology to tell the story of Canadian art in multiple ways, using multiple channels. The Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts gave the project a funding award earlier this year.

“We know we can’t become a household name overnight, but we are getting there pretty fast,” says Angel.

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For more information:

Art Canada Institute Website

Canada Art Institute Donation Page